Wow, you can really taste the culture…

“Hallo? Ja, ich bin noch im Zug!” (You see this is actually a very good joke indeed, because ‘im Zug’ means ‘on the train’ and yet ‘Zug’ can mean both ‘train’ and ‘parade’. Thank you for listening.)

 At a loose end for what to do on Pfingsten, the Pentecostal holiday that for some reason British people choose to ignore entirely (and yet we devote ourselves to Pancake Day. Why? Not that I’m complaining) I was delighted to hear that this weekend was the Karneval der Kulturen. I was slightly less delighted when the weather on the Saturday made the whole city feel like a wet and grimy dishcloth had been carelessly slapped over the sky. Yet when I woke up on the Sunday morning, head slightly pulsing from the Eurovision refreshments of the night before, the sun was streaming through my enormous Berlin windows and I knew that there was nothing more appropriate for a day like this than a big, giant parade.

The Karneval der Kulturen is a massive parade. Well, slightly more than that; thousands of stands sprout around Hallesches Tor and Mehringdamm offering all kinds of multicultural trinkets, most of which being the kind of nice stuff that you like to look at and touch and go ‘oooh’, but the idea of parting with hard Euros for it seems vaguely comical. Things like sharks’ teeth, or a large sack of dried rosebuds, or a hat made of recycled vinyl records. There are also a dizzying number of food stalls with delicacies from everywhere you can imagine, although the African specialities that my friend and I were searching for did seem to only reside in the part furthest away from where we started looking. There was a Siberian stall selling genuine bear meat, which made me so truly sad I began to feel vaguely racist against Siberia despite knowing nothing else about the country. There was a South American stall selling little coaster-sized tablets of fried polenta topped with a green avocado paste. Interestingly, there was no UK stall, presumably because there isn’t much potential in selling droopy slices of beef wellington and Marmite on toast among such an array of genuinely delicious things.

In between the stalls there are little stages where musicians of different cultural milieus do their funky thang while the public generally mooch along to the music, doing that kind of bouncy-knee dance people do when they’re also holding a leaking paper plate of red stew in one hand and a grizzling baby in the other. I found a very fun reggae stage where the guy was really going for it, shaking his dreadlocks around like a real tribute to joy itself, and was having fun until two small boys next to me began throwing stones into my shoes for no apparent reason. Another stage had an Imogen Heap-like woman wooooooo-ing into a microphone whilst playing a synthesiser and a theremin. She was terrific, but I still can’t quite pinpoint which culture she was supposed to represent. We found another promising performance with lots of people with drums, and it was exciting and rhythmic for the first thirty seconds, after which it became clear that this was just a lot of people going ‘bangy bangy bangy’ with no real aim for their fifteen-minute slot. 

Not to undermine it all, however; this was a brilliant and affirming place to be. All the music and colours and dancing and laughing swirling around me made me feel glad to be here and to be here now; it was a crazy mishmash of noise and people and smells which remind you to wake up and pay attention, because stuff like this is much much better than Reading’s The Oracle shopping centre on a Sunday afternoon. I drank it up like a thirsty kitten. 

But yes, the parade. The festival takes place over a number of days but Sunday is the climax, as hundreds of ‘cultural representatives’ (read: diverse vaguely-organised groups of either ethnic minorities or people who all share a love of shouting) create floats that process along the streets with music, dancing and costumes a-go-go. Now this was exciting. I’ve never seen a parade before, but my mental image was sewn together from that Brazilian carnival with the dancing feather-ladies, and those cheerleader parades in American teen movies with floats covered in plastic flowers in the shapes of team mascots. In my mind, this was going to be a truly epic event. 

In actual fact it was indeed bags of fun, although that was mainly because of the company and not because of the parade. The fluffy rainbowy procession of gaudy trucks and scantily-clad whooping dancers and people blowing vuvuzelas was nowhere to be found. Instead, each country represented itself by taking the sides off an old truck, filling it with shrieking people wearing idiotic themed hats, and getting a bunch of other people to dance behind the truck in half-arsed costumes that they had evidently bought at EuroLand. A lot of these ones were nonetheless very popular because they were also blaring loud omnicultural music out the back end and therefore there were hordes of people following them and dancing along. Sadly, these crummy offerings tended to blot out the occasional gem where the group had put in real effort, like the truck for Peru which had traditional Peruvian dancers in full, beautiful costume following the carefully-decorated vehicle. Or like the frilly South American van which was dolled up in vivid Aztec style and had a DJ on the truck dressed as Quetzalcoatl. 

Or the North African stand with the gourd-covered alligator man. 

What an opportunity and a privilege to make a wagon that displays all of the fun and colour and pride of your nation! The creative freedom you have to make something so abstract and so limitless! Why wouldn’t every group take the chance to make their float the most awe-inspiring tribute to their whole culture? I know that I, for one, would make a UK float a proper emblem, with an enormous mug of tea gleaming like a trophy, a digestive biscuit perched on one edge and dancers dressed in smart tweed emerging from the mug itself, surrounded by a choreographed ensemble of Sherlock Holmes’s, Shakespeares, and all the characters from Harry Potter.  

I suppose that’s the thing with festivals like this. You can’t expect a mind-blowing spectacular, because that’s a great deal of work to put in. And, in the end, you would be providing much more than what people fundamentally crave, which is the opportunity to see unusual things, drink, and aimlessly dance about for a bit until they’re tired and blissed-out. To achieve that, all you need is trucks and music and food and booze and stupid hats. 

Rose T